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The Exchange Program That Puts College Kids in Classrooms with Prisoners

An ex-con became a professional criminal justice reform advocate thanks to a program that lets felons learn alongside students from outside prison walls.

Back in 2008, Jon McIntyre's favorite time to read was at dawn, when rays of sunlight would slowly creep into his cell's tiny window at Graterford State Correctional Institution in eastern Pennsylvania.

"I would just lie in my bed in the top bunk or bottom bunk and just kick my feet up and just keep the book on my chest and read a couple hundred pages," McIntyre, who had never read a book before going to prison, said in an interview.

Then 28, he was nearing the end of a 12-year sentence at the prison for flipping cocaine, ecstasy, and stolen firearms and burglarizing small businesses. During a botched convenience-store robbery when he was 19, McIntyre's associate shot a clerk with a .357 magnum twice in the chest at point-blank range—all for $20. McIntyre was the getaway driver. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault, firearms, and narcotics trafficking. The prosecutor on the case labeled McIntyre and his co-defendants as " dangerous, violent thugs" in the local press.

"After they arrested us, I didn't see the light of day again until August 27, 2011," he said.

McIntyre was lonely adapting to a routine behind prison walls. His home in Philadelphia was about two hours away and he had few visitors; even his parents didn't come by very often. His cellmate was constantly reading encyclopedias, newspapers, books, and issues of Playboy, sometimes lending McIntyre these literary scraps.

Books soon became his escape from the slog of incarceration.

McIntyre began relentlessly educating himself behind bars. He had dropped out of school in the 11th grade, so a high school equivalency exam, or a GED, was the first step. He passed. Vocational trades courses were next. He dabbled in automotive repair, construction, and business administration before moving on to community-college courses.

The key was hearing about the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program that Temple University was facilitating at Graterford. McIntyre was intrigued by the course's unorthodox dynamic: Half of his classmates would be regular college kids, but the other half would be his fellow inmates. The topic was criminal justice, and classes were to be held just a few hallways from his cell. Students who had never stepped foot in prison would be learning alongside—and from—men in brown prison-issued clothing.

"[It was] an opportunity to cross boundaries that are not supposed to be crossed. Students from the outside are not supposed to be sitting next to and learning from people on the inside," McIntyre recalled.

McIntyre quickly enrolled. He had no idea what to expect, least of all that Inside-Out would change his life.

On a Thursday afternoon in September 2008, McIntyre sat on his cell's bunk waiting to go to his first Inside-Out class. He was nervous. A million questions bubbled to the surface of his brain about the college students he was about to meet.

McIntyre left his cell and entered a white cinder-block classroom illuminated by fluorescent lights and decorated with self-help posters. Correctional officers stared through a thick pane of glass from the hallway. He found his seat and focused on his classmates: a dozen young Temple University students seated in a circle. It was a cauldron of eclectic people. Those serving life sentences were mingling with middle-class, suburban university students.

At first, he kept to himself, but soon one of the college kids caught McIntyre's attention.

His name was Frank Campanell, a bright and passionate 22-year-old Temple University student. Campanell and McIntyre had little in common, except that, for a semester, they occupied that little room in Graterford. Campanell was a guitar-playing country kid who grew up on a horse farm and was pursing a biochemistry degree. He was short and wiry, with dusty blond hair and glasses.

"It blew my mind. [Jon] shattered perceptions I had about people who were incarcerated. It shattered my understanding of education and what it could be." —Frank Campanell

"I never imagined myself—a little surfer kid from Maryland—would move to North Philly and take a class in prison with a guy who has a record, serious experience on the other side of the tracks and is someone the average person perceives as dangerous," said Campanell, who had never been arrested and knew nothing of prison.

And then there was McIntyre: a muscular Philadelphia suburbanite with a buzz cut and gorilla posture who had recently converted to Islam. When he was 26, McIntyre spent three months in solitary confinement at Albion State Correctional Institution for beating a fellow inmate within an inch of his life. Yet McIntyre and Campanell immediately connected over a class discussion on the racial disparities in the sentencing of crack-cocaine cases.

"[Jon] was more articulate, more open, and more intellectual than many students I've ever seen and professors I've met," said Campanell. "But he was just a regular dude with me. It blew my mind. [He] shattered perceptions I had about people who were incarcerated. It shattered my understanding of education and what it could be."

For three hours once a week for an entire semester, McIntyre and Campanell discussed the American criminal justice system, rehabilitation, restorative and social justice, as well as prison abolitionists like Angela Davis. They wrestled with the consequences of labeling, dissecting words like felon, prisoner, and convict.

When the Inside-Out class ended in December 2008, Campanell returned to his biochemistry classes at Temple. McIntyre, on the other hand, resumed a dreary existence in a cage. But he was changed. He was reminded that he wasn't just a criminal, that he actually had something to offer, and that he wasn't hopeless—all things he hadn't felt in a long time.

"You begin to think that that everyone thinks you are an animal," he said of incarcerated life. "So even though most of the outside population that I came in contact with on a daily basis treated me like that, it was reassuring and inspiring to know that there were some people who didn't and wouldn't."

Half a decade later, McIntyre and Campanell would coincidentally reconnect on the outside, but as irrevocably different people.

Students from Philadelphia's University of the Sciences pass through security en route to an Inside-Out course

Since its inception in 1997, Inside-Out has been taught at more than 130 academic institutions in 37 states across America, and has graduated more than 20,000 incarcerated individuals and college students from Ohio State University to Stanford.

Hundreds of facilitators from around the world have been trained to teach Inside-Out's curriculum, and now their correctional educational model is being adopted internationally. Canada became the first country outside the US to start teaching Inside-Out in 2011, and individuals from Norway, Australia, and the United Kingdom are moving to embrace it as well.

The program has also moved beyond prison walls. Homeless shelters, halfway houses, and domestic-violence centers are partnering with colleges and inviting students into these spaces to learn alongside the people who occupy them.

Despite Inside-Out's success, correctional education in America has, at least until recently, been atrophying. The 2008 economic downturn triggered a shrinkage of prison-education programs, according to a 2014 RAND Corporation report conducted in cooperation with the Justice Department. Between 2009 and 2012, 36 states reported a decrease in correctional education funding.

"The recession had a profound effect on the field," said Lois Davis, a correctional-education expert with RAND and co-author of that report.

Davis found that large states slashed spending on prison-education programs by an average of 10 percent between 2009 and 2012. Medium-size states experienced a 20 percent reduction, and nationally, prison-education funding fell by an average of 6 percent.

"When you look at academic programs, there has been a retraction, especially in states with larger prison populations," explained Davis. "There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of teachers, as well as the number of students participating in these programs."

According to Lori Pompa, Inside-Out's founder, her organization has largely avoided these funding issues and depends on nonprofit grant money and universities to pay their instructors' salaries.

Davis relied on research showing that, as of 2004, 37 percent of inmates in America's state prisons didn't have a high school education. Fewer than 15 percent had any college or university coursework in their history. Most are haunted by their criminal records, returning to a job market for which they are underequipped.

Correctional education programs are proven—by the RAND study and others—to counter recidivism. University students and inmates are equally eligible for university credits in Inside-Out, and the program offers retroactive credit for incarcerated individuals, who do not pay for taking the course. Upon release, incarcerated individuals can receive credit but must continue their higher education at the university that facilitated the original Inside-Out class.

"We hope it stops the recidivism—this rotating door that's been going on for years and years," said Juanita Goodman, warden of Philadelphia's Alternative and Special Detention facility, where Inside-Out has been taught. "If we can get people interested in school or getting a job and they stay out, then that's good for us."

Most prisons offer pre-GED and GED testing, vocational programs in varying fields from horticulture to dog training, and a few community-college courses. Inside-Out goes further.

Inside-Out facilitators Mandy Nourse-Berwald and Danyell Williams teach at 600 University Avenue, a minimum-security work-release prison in West Philadelphia.

It gives [inmates] confidence and insight into something completely new," said Goodman, who insisted Inside-Out has set the benchmark for higher education in her prison. "They dealt with some of things personally that the students had only read about in books, so it made them feel like they had just as much to offer, if not more, than some of the [university] students taking the class."

By 2014, McIntyre, 34, had been out of prison for more than two years. The sleepy Philadelphia suburb of Phoenixville was his new home, and he was earning $80,000 annually as a salesman for a heating and plumbing company. Prison was in the rearview mirror. So were the days of burglarizing gun stores and moving eight balls of coke. Studying, boxing, and basketball were his chief leisurely pursuits. He was enrolled part-time at Temple, pursuing a bachelor's degree in sociology. Apart from a probation officer regularly sniffing around his apartment, things were normal. But something was missing.

"At the end of the day there was still kind of a hole in me," McIntyre told me. "I didn't feel like I was really doing the things that made me happy."

He thought about Inside-Out and eventually looked up the organization's founder, Lori Pompa. She invited McIntyre to a staff retreat. There, McIntyre locked eyes with the familiar face of Frank Campanell. They hadn't seen each other since waving goodbye on the blocks of Graterford in 2008.

For a second, McIntyre was ecstatic. Then he was shocked. Campanell was supposed to be a biochemist, balancing equations and fiddling with beakers in a hospital laboratory somewhere in Maryland. Instead, now 29, the former college kid was teaching Inside-Out classes and working with incarcerated Philadelphia youth.

Rodney Archangel, 28, an inmate at a minimum-security prison in Philadelphia, reflects on his Inside-Out experiences following a class in early 2014.

"I kind of feel responsible—he gave up a degree in biochemistry," explained McIntyre, whose friendship with Campanell through Inside-Out completely altered the younger man's professional trajectory. "He gave up a career in that field because of the experience that we shared together. Had he not given up his degree, he'd potentially be making some decent bank right now."

Following the pair's conversations at Graterford in 2008, Campanell became disinterested in his studies at Temple. Prison was his new obsession.

"I took a step back," said Campanell, who now works for JusticeWorks YouthCare. "I don't want to be in a lab or hospital for the rest of my life climbing the rungs of the ladder. Inside-Out helped me see how I could contribute to the world. That experience led me to believe."

The reunion inspired McIntyre and Campanell to soon found their own company. Nothing yet is concrete, but they have a few ideas. One is to bring the 3-D and the virtual reality film technology Oculus Rift into courtrooms to expedite and increase the number of sentencing proceedings on a daily basis. Instead of a judge hearing 50 cases, for example, he or she could get through 100.

"It will increase the quality and the efficacy of the criminal justice system," McIntyre said.

The technology could also cut down on resources and costs required to transport prisoners from their cell to the courtroom. If their dreams come to fruition, the result will illustrate correctional education's potential to spark social change.

"If not for certain people and certain things I wouldn't be here right now," Campanell added. "Jon is one of those people. The first Inside-Out class was, too. That influenced so much of what I am and who I want to be."

On the other end of the spectrum, McIntyre has emerged as a criminal-justice advocate since his release two years ago. He guest lectures at Inside-Out classes and speaks on university panels around Philadelphia.

"Life's a trip isn't it?" said McIntyre, whose own evolution still feels surreal, even to himself.

Policymakers and professors now accept him as peer. Students look up to him. They even take notes on the words coming out of his mouth during panels or lectures, a phenomenon that still makes McIntyre's eyeballs roll to the back of his skull.

"When I speak in front of kids, all these years later, and they're actually writing down the shit that I say and my coming to speak to them has meaning and influence—it's trippy. If you would have told me that five or six years ago, in prison, I might have believed you, but I would have thought it's a long, long shot."

Dorian Geiger is a Canadian multimedia journalist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.